The high elbow catch is not given credit for it’s importance in most classes or articles. It’s not an easy motion to master and will break down quickly under duress, unless it has been practiced constantly and well. Having a “feel” for the water is more about knowing what you should be feeling on your hands and forearms at different points in the pull. Once you know what to feel, then you can duplicate it. Here is Sun Yang at the 2012 Summer Olympics. He uses a high elbow catch style of swimming, common for distance swimmers, and what should be used by 99.9% of amateur swimmers and triathletes.
Make an early catch while on your side:
Catch 1: He’s breathing, and his right pull has just finished. He’s fully rotated (45-60deg from horizontal) and you can see his back as a result, even from this angle beneath the surface. His left wrist breaks to start his next catch, as he wants no delay between one stroke finishing and the next beginning.
Catch 2: He stays on his side to make his catch. You can still see his back, and his left forearm is almost vertical. One mistake amateurs make is rotating too early and making the catch out to the side. All the pros have amazing shoulder flexibility to get to this position this early in the pull. His recovering arm has come over the top and is just entering the water – his entire recovery happens while he’s rotated.
Catch 3: His forearm is now vertical, and still in front of his head. He’s starting to flatten out more, but he keeps his pull under his shoulder for power. His head is back down in position.
Catch 4: His arm pulls back in one position around his shoulder joint, moving his vertical forearm back with respect to his body.
Catch 5: He’s finished his pull and is ready to recover his arm. Notice he never fully extends his left arm – there’s no point to it as it lengthens recovery time without providing propulsion.
Your hand should move forward and down to make a “no pressure” catch:
Catch 6: He is at the start his right side catch. His hand is even with the color block on the lane line.
Catch 7: He is making the catch as his forearm moves to vertical. Notice his hand is now in front of the color block and his elbow is right on it – the elbow has moved forward and the forearm forward and down. It’s easy to see that his head has moved from well behind the block to almost even with it. His body is moving forward over his catch. This is all done with momentum from his left pull and a couple kicks. This is the “glide” phase from extension to catch. No pressure is applied during this phase – his center of mass is actually slowing down while this happens. Every swimmer at every level slows down during the catch phase. Swimming is a game of slowing down the least.
Catch 8: Now he’s pulling and his arm is out to the side. It is even with the color block, as is his head. He’s accelerating.
Catch 9: He has traveled, as evidenced by how far his head has moved from the start to the end of his arm stroke, almost one body length. This is close to perfect, given that his arm is about half his body length. He makes his catch and there is virtually no “slip” of his arm backward through the water. This is a true “anchor” catch.
All this is made possible by proper catch and pull execution, a lot of power built over many years of training, and a very streamlined body behind it.